Oskar Eustis

Oskar Eustis on Trump, ‘Julius Caesar’ and the Politics of Theater

The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of “Julius Caesar” opened on Monday night under unusual circumstances: A firestorm of criticism from the right over the use of an actor styled as President Trump to portray Caesar, and then knifed to death as part of the story, led three major corporate donors to distance themselves from the show.

After the opening-night performance, and before the party that followed, Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public and director of the “Julius Caesar” production, sat down in the Delacorte Theater for a few minutes to answer questions about the matter.

[Read why “Julius Caesar” speaks to the politics of today.]

He noted that a few years earlier there had been an American production of the play in which Caesar was Obama-like, and no controversy had ensued. He also sharply criticized The New York Times for publishing a review of the play, which defended the staging, before the official opening. The Times cited the unfolding controversy as a rationale for doing so, but Mr. Eustis argued that the publication had become a tool of the outrage machine.

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What were you trying to tell us about our politics today with this particular staging?

We have faced a transition and a set of electoral choices, which are clearly destabilizing our democratic norms. Now, the question is, How do we respond to that? What do we do about it? And this, if you will, is a progressive’s nightmare vision of that.

For me, the whole thing is an anxiety nightmare parable about our current state, and that’s why it looks the way it looks.

Is Trump Caesar?

Of course not. Julius Caesar is Julius Caesar. What we are doing is what we try and do in every production, which is make the dramatic stakes as real and powerful for contemporary people as we can, in our time and our place.

Did you anticipate the outrage?

No. But all of this stuff is not about my production of “Julius Caesar.” This is about the right-wing hate machine. Those thousands of people who are calling our corporate sponsors to complain about this — none of them have seen the show. They’re not interested in seeing the show. They haven’t read “Julius Caesar.” They are being manipulated by “Fox & Friends” and other news sources, which are deliberately, for their own gain, trying to rile people up and turn them against an imagined enemy, which we are not.

You know by this…

How Outrage Built Over a Shakespearean Depiction of Trump

Shortly after the presidential election, Oskar Eustis, one of New York’s most successful theater executives, knew what he wanted to do. He would direct a production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” with the title character a provocative but inexact stand-in for President Trump.

Mr. Eustis was not alone. All over the country, from Oklahoma to Oregon, theaters have been staging “Julius Caesar” this year as a way to chew over politics, power, democracy and authoritarianism at a moment when a populist leader with a fondness for executive power has moved into the White House.

Most of the productions take place without incident, but Mr. Eustis’s, which opened Monday night in New York, has been engulfed in controversy ever since a bootleg video of the assassination of Caesar, who is styled and performed to suggest Mr. Trump, began circulating on the internet last week and some who had seen the performance started to complain.

That prompted Mr. Eustis to devote his opening-night speech to a full-throated defense of the theater’s mission, which he urged audience members at the outdoor Delacorte Theater to record on their cellphones and share. “When we hold the mirror up to nature,” he said, “often what we reveal are disturbing, upsetting, provoking things. Thank God. That’s our job.”

A clash between Trump supporters and an iconic Manhattan arts institution over what kind of art is appropriate was perhaps inevitable in this hyperpartisan age. The proudly iconoclastic Public Theater is the birthplace of “Hair” (the Vietnam era antiwar musical) and “Hamilton” (the hip-hop musical celebrating immigrants). And Mr. Eustis, the Public’s artistic director, is an unabashedly left-leaning theatermaker who believes in the value of provocative art.

Defenders of the production, including some theater critics, describe the Public’s “Julius Caesar” as nuanced, complex and loyal to Shakespeare’s text — a cautionary tale about the costs of political violence.

But the production is also explicit and graphic, featuring a blond, Trump-like Caesar in a red tie, whose bloody stabbing is seen as offensive and inappropriate to some who have seen it. They, along with Breitbart News and Fox News, have driven a campaign on social media against the Public that has prompted two corporate sponsors — Delta Air Lines and Bank of America — to withdraw their support of the production, and a third, American Express, to distance itself.

“It was appalling,” Laura Sheaffer said in a radio interview. “Shocking.”

Ms. Sheaffer, a sales manager for Salem Media, a conservative-leaning media group, saw a performance on June 3. Three days later she described her dismay over the production in a conversation with the conservative radio host and comedian, Joe Piscopo, then voiced her concern again to the media and politics site Mediaite, declaring “I don’t love President Trump, but he’s the president. You can’t assassinate him on a stage.” Mediaite made the most of the story, posting it with the headline “Senators Stab Trump to Death in Central Park Performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.”

The reaction from the artistic community could not have been more different. “It’s an odd reading to say that it incites violence, because the meat of the tragedy of the play is the tragic repercussions of the assassination,” said Bill Rauch, the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which is presenting…